Nauru is a small island country, a speck in the Pacific Ocean, with an area of only 21-square-kilometers. It is the smallest state in the South Pacific and third smallest state by area in the world. Nauru was originally inhabited by Micronesian and Polynesian people for at least 3,000 years, who remained isolated from western contact except for the occasional runaway sailor or escaped convict, until the late 19th century when it was annexed and claimed as a colony by the German Empire. The Europeans soon discovered phosphate deposits and the tiny island became a strip mine, exploited by foreign colonial powers. After it gained its independence in 1968, mining intensified until most of the phosphate had been stripped and the island’s economy went south. In the process of mining phosphate to fertilize fields in faraway places, the country had rendered its own landscape infertile. Today, the island is a barren wasteland with jagged limestone pinnacles that cover 80% of the island.
Nauru’s phosphate deposit is the result of thousands of years of bird droppings, also called guano. This rich deposit lies near the surface, allowing easy strip mining operation. The Germans were the first to exploit these resources before the rights to mining was transferred to the British by an agreement. After the First World War, the League of Nations made Britain, Australia and New Zealand trustees over Nauru, and the British Phosphate Commission was formed who took over the rights to the phosphates.
After Nauru became a sovereign, independent nation, the newly formed government purchased the full rights to the phosphate business from Australia, and its economy soared. The profits from the mining activities raised Nauru's per capita income to the highest level enjoyed by any sovereign state in the world. While the mining business exploded, the land was systematically destroyed. Phosphate mining in Nauru involved scrapping off the surface soil and removing the phosphate from between the walls and columns of ancient coral. What remained after mining were tall columns of coral and uneven depressions between them that’s unusable for habitation, crops or anything else. Mining also affected marine life surrounding the island as silt and phosphate runoff contaminated the waters.
The site of secondary mining of Phosphate rock in Nauru, 2007. Photo credit
Tall pillars of coral is what remains after the phosphate is removed. Photo credit
Then the phosphate ran out, and the trust that had been established to manage the island's wealth diminished in value. The trust also made a series of bad investments including overseas hotels and the Air Nauru airline, which never made profit, essentially undermining the nation's economic future. Desperate for a source of income, Nauru started selling passports to foreign nationals for a fee and taking in war refugees which other countries refused. This led to the creation of the Nauru detention center in 2001 by Australia, which continues to provided a significant source of income and employment for the country.
The land and economy weren’t the only things ravaged. The Nauruans are among the most sick and obese people in the world, racked by diabetes and high blood pressure. Few people live past the age of 60 years.
Before independence, there was a culture of fishing and gardening among the Nauruans and they ate fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables grown on land. With the easy income from phosphate, the people stopped farming and began importing canned and frozen food. As a result, Nauru has the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the world. 94% of its residents are overweight while 72% of them are obese. More than 40% of the population has type 2 diabetes, as well as other significant dietary-related problems such as kidney disease and heart disease.
Nauru still exports small amount of phosphate but the revenue earned through it is not enough to sustain a population of 10,000. Foreign aid, chiefly from Australia, Taiwan and New Zealand, is the only thing keeping the Nauruans alive.
Participants of a walk against Diabetes and for general fitness around Nauru airport. Photo credit
Subscribe to our Newsletter and get articles like this delieverd straight to your inbox